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Portlanders Bring Quirk Against Quell

July 24th, 2020 by dk

Portland is on the national stage these days. Depending on your preferred news sources, this literal street theater can be viewed as a tragedy or a comedy. A closer examination shows a combination of both.

It started with Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder, staged each evening in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Portland. Protesters in Eugene pursued a smarter strategy. Local activists here meet and march to different places every night. That way, nobody feels obligated to outdo whatever happened the night before.

After two months of nightly protests, Portland’s activists had begun to lose steam. But then President Donald Trump stepped in as commander in chief.

Fresh from his rousing victory over a few dozen peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to pose with a Bible, Trump liked the look of soldiers in camouflage “dominating the streets.” His followers were not suitably impressed. Trump needed a better adversary.

Portland filled the bill. Anonymized soldiers with no badges or identifying insignias were sent into Portland to knock a few hippie heads. It was just like the 1960s all over again. (Insert your favorite joke here about Trump’s bone spurs.)

Soldiers essentially kidnapped a young man walking home. He was wearing a black shirt, but was doing nothing violent. Maybe he was wearing anarchisty cologne. Whatever his misdeed, he was whisked off in a rented van and another viral moment was added to the BLM annals. (We used to call this civic journalism, but now it’s just observers with cell phones.)

One of the observers can be heard on the video asking the federal agents for their names or their affiliation. “Use your words,” she told them, which showed how Portlanders were determined to shift the narrative.

Portland’s mayor, the state’s governor and attorney general made it clear that these soldiers were not invited and were not welcome. Lawsuits and Congressional inquiries were launched, but both sides had the video footage they needed to make their case.

Trump could portray himself as a law-and-order president, except without the law part. Protesters could show overreach of power — a chilling example of police state politics.

There isn’t a good word for the festive-yet-also-alarmed mood of these protests. People are frightened and frustrated that change is being resisted, but also celebrating the exhilaration that comes from pursuing a common cause. (The word is eudaemonia, but that’s not helpful.)

After watching the late-night abduction on YouTube, every Portlander who owns a black tee shirt worried they could be next. Protest crowds swelled. And then things got interesting. Naked Athena practiced her yoga poses in the middle of the street and dared soldiers to engage. (They did.)

The Wall of Moms emerged to stand on the front lines, protecting their children from militia violence. Wearing bike helmets and defiant scowls, they confronted the men in camo as the neighborhood bullies they were. Then came the Oregon Dads, with leaf blowers to send the wafts of tear gas back where it came from. Portland Dads to DC: “Get off our lawn!”

This is brilliant strategy. John Lewis always told protesters to “get in the way.” He must be proud, smiling from his new perch above us. When violence is met with the subversive defiance of Pacific Northwest humor, who will look more sympathetic on the nightly news? 


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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